Q. We haven’t shopped for a car for a long time and would like tips to help us make an intelligent purchase. – E.H., Los Angeles

A. First, get the sticker price and invoice price for the car and all its factory options. Publications such as Consumers Digest and Consumer Reports and Internet sites can help  here. Also, look for advertised national rebates and, if possible, unadvertised dealer incentives and “holdbacks.” Contrary to what some think, a dealership can sell a car for its invoice price and make money. That just makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, it must
pay its personnel and bills. Bargain up from the lowest price you can find, never down from the sticker price. Refuse to buy such items as undercoating, fabric protection and other “extras.” They’re generally overpriced or worthless.

Q. I’m interested in a particular new model but it has an odd color I haven’t seen anywhere. The dealer is willing to give me a lot off on it. Should I buy? – A.S., San Francisco

A. If the color doesn’t bother you, go ahead—but only if you plan to keep it for a long time because you’ll have a hard time selling it or getting a decent trade-in price. Note that it’s being offered for a rock-bottom price because the dealer made a mistake and ordered a car with a color nobody wants. Such mistakes are rare, though. It’s likely a customer ordered the car and then couldn’t come up with the money for it. 

Q. I’m considering the purchase of a 2011 Hyundai Sonata, but am undecided between the SE and Limited trim levels. I’ve heard that the SE version has a firmer suspension than the Limited. Would the SE suspension give a bumpy ride on poor Chicago area roads? – Frank W., Glenview, Ill.

A. The SE is a mildly sporty version of the Sonata and thus has a sport suspension and low-profile 45-series tires on 18-inch wheels. The Limited has a regular suspension and 55-series tires on 17-inch wheels. The Limited thus has a little less road grip than the SE but a more comfortable ride. However, although firm, I wouldn’t call the SE’s ride uncomfortable. And it’s more fun to drive. In all, though, it seems like you’d be happiest with the Limited. 

Q. My parents have become senior citizens, in their 70s but still driving. I worry about their motoring safety. What can I do to help assure their safest driving? – P.K., Miami

A. Make sure their car is still a good fit for them. For instance, the seat may be too low or the pedals too far to reach comfortably. Or mirrors may no longer be in the right position for good rear vision. Such items as pedal extensions and booster seats can help. If a new car is involved, look for options such as adjustable foot pedals, large interior door handles, oversized dashboard knobs and support handles to assist with entry and exit. Note that many sound system controls have become so small they’re difficult for drivers of any age to safely use when driving. Make sure your parents drive as much as possible on known routes that don’t require frequent lane changes or have heavy traffic.  

Q. Electric and hybrid vehicles are getting lots of publicity, but do people really understand their technologies? – F.K., Seattle

A. Consumers have relatively low product knowledge of electric-only and electric-hybrid vehicles and see electric technology vehicles as useful for those who do limited driving., says a study from the Maritz Automotive Research Group. Some 55 percent of survey respondents said an electric car is a “good choice for a second car within my household, but not a good choice for my primary vehicle.” Low consumer familiarity and understanding of alternative fuel vehicles—including electric-only and gasoline-electric hybrids—has a cooling effect on their purchase intent, Maritz Research said.

Q. Some people tell me that they’ll never buy a certain make of car because they had a bad experience with it years ago. I tell them vehicles have improved, often dramatically, in recent years.  – G.R., Detroit

A. Perceptions about reliability are slow to change and some brands have a negative consumer perception that’s at odds with reality. But brands are “getting the word out about their actual reliability performance and are slowly but steadily changing perceptions,” says Kerri Wise, auto research director at J.D. Power and Associates. J.D. Power’s national 2010 Avoider Study found that some redesigned models have much higher consideration rates than previous-generation models they replaced. Among redesigned models, the Cadillac SRX, Ford Taurus and Kia Sorento have notably higher consideration rates, compared to their predecessors. But, among premium brands, it was found that concerns over maintenance costs play a major role (in purchase decisions)—despite a number of such brands providing free maintenance as a part of the initial purchase price.

Q. I notice there are many fun-to-drive cars and a lot more regular autos with features that make them fun to drive, such as stronger engines, firmer suspensions and wider tires. Does this mean driving attitudes are changing? – J.H., Evanston, Ill.

A. New vehicle owners are increasingly citing fun-to-drive vehicles as a top reason to remain loyal to their brand, while shifting away from expected resale value as a loyalty reason, says the J.D. Power 2010 Customer Retention study. The importance of a fun-to-drive vehicle also has increased as a reason why brands capture new customers from rivals. “Now that economic and market conditions have improved somewhat, vehicle owners are increasingly citing emotional, rather than practical, reasons for staying with their vehicle brand or switching to a different one, says Raffi Festekjian, auto product research director at J.D. Power. 

Q.  I’m thinking of buying a 1961-67 Jaguar XK-E sports car. a 1963-4 supercharged V-8 Studebaker Avanti coupe—or one of the identical-looking hand-built Chevy V-8 powered Avanti II coupes from 1965-76. The Jag and Avanti are fantastic-looking. However,  I will use the one I buy regularly, not just use it as a weekend toy.  – J.A., Dallas

A. Bingo! You came to the right person because I owned a 1966 Jaguar XK-E (called the “E-Type” overseas) and three 1960s Avanti IIs. The Studebaker Avanti or Avanti II win hands-down for regular use. They’re more rugged and less temperamental than the Jaguar and have no-rust fiberglass bodies. Being an original, the “Stude” Avanti is worth more than the Avanti II, but parts for the Chevy V-8 are easier to get than parts for the Studebaker V-8, although many parts for any Avanti are fairly easy to obtain.

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